Thursday, November 21, 2013

Death in the Family

There was a tragic death in my family today. An unexpected passing that has brought my own mortality into sharp relief against the expressionless march of time. As children we live with a sense of immortality, lent to us by the steadfast constancy of the people and places around us. We live in the only house we have every lived in. We are surrounded by the only people we have every lived with. We eat the only food we have every eaten. There is no sense of change, no sense for any real passage of time.

Then, as we say, life happens. When we say that, what we are really saying is that things change. We move to a new city. General Mills stops making French Toast Crunch. Our parents add more siblings. Time begins to inch along and as it creeps along our periphery like a gentle moss. But the changes of child are usually additive. More siblings, more friends, more spelling words, a bigger bike, a driver's license, a first kiss. Life is gathering like a storm surge and the momentum is intoxicating.

The rush of progress and learning fortify our determination. We might have no idea what we are doing but that doesn't matter because we are doing it. The foam and the spray blind us. As independent and powerful as we feel it's like an amusement park ride. The thrill is controlled, the danger is only simulated, and the harnesses are neatly constructed of the constants that have bolstered our sense of immortality since the day we were born.

Occasionally we lose things. A friend my die tragically young, the house we grew up in may now be the stage for another's start, a significant-other might find someone else more significant. The ebb is only temporary. As we flash into young adulthood we are still adding more things than we are losing. We get married, we get a job, we have kids, we buy a house. Yes. we have hit terminal velocity on our moonshot to eternity.

I'm not really sure when it happens but eventually we start losing more things. Many things. Eventually we start losing more things than we gain. That's when it's over. That's when the wave washes harmlessly across the sand. The cliche joke for any milestone birthday is that you are over the hill. But when is that really. Is it 40? 50? 60? No, it's when you stop building. I hope I never reach the top.

Well, I digress. Today I lost something and it's a tragedy it couldn't last forever. I don't think there will be a memorial service but I will observe a solemn moment of silence for my parent's SONY SPORTS MEGA BASS CFS-914 BOOMBOX with AM/FM radio and a cassette player. It bit the dust today and my world is collapsing around me.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Don't Be Confusing

Here is a note I got from an undergraduate studying physics and my response:

On 11/11/13, Nicholas H. wrote:
I read one of your posts about the usefulness of writing skills and even graphic design skills in physics and I've been thinking about what I would need to improve in those areas.  Could you elaborate any more about how you use those skills or what you must be able to do to excel in those areas?

On 11/12/13 Tyler wrote:
In my opinion the ability to solve hard problems is almost as important as knowing how to weave a story that describes why those problems are interesting and how your solutions solve them. Richard Feynman might be the ultimate example of a Physicist that mastered the art of communicating technical information in a very elegant and accessible way. There are several of his lectures and interviews on YouTube. I would recommend watching/listening to some of them. You don't need to copy him just pay attention to how he goes about crafting his explanations.

As a Physicist doing R&D for a large company, I am under constant pressure to get results very quickly. I run many experiments on a daily basis that generate piles of data. Much of my time is spent grooming that data. Whittling it down to some nugget of critical information. Typically I'll need to fit a week's worth of work into a single PowerPoint slide and the only explanation I can provide may be a 5 minute presentation to a room full of people that have no idea what I'm talking about. In that situation it's all about being concise and direct and, above all, not confusing people. Our goal is ultimately to make decisions; confused people don't make good decisions.

Obviously writing is critical to your ability to communicate but learning some simple elements of design could really help you understand how to guide someones eye in your presentation and avoid slides cluttered with text or incomprehensible graphs. I'm not saying you should become a graphic designer but it's a crime for people to miss the point of your presentation because they were battling with your graphics. A great reference is a guy named Edward Tufte ( He's written a few books on the subject.

On a grander scale I often catch myself falling victim to what I call the Harry Potter syndrome. This syndrome is the idea that people will be able to see my true potential in spite of any apparent disorganization or ignorance. Unfortunately, it's a delusion. People will only see what you present. If it's confusing they will have very little confidence in what you are saying, Your career will be built on the confidence that other people have in you.